Information and culture minister, Lai Mohammed, jetted out to the United States, barely a week after assuring Nigerians that the suspension of Twitter’s operations was going to be soon resolved.
With the trip coming on the heels of the minister’s announcement, a media report suggested that he “sneaked out” to meet Twitter officials in the U.S. to hasten the resolution of a crisis that has become a lightning rod for bad publicity for the President Muhammadu Buhari administration home and abroad.
The suspension announced by Mr Mohammed on June 4, two days after the microblogging site took down a controversial tweet by Mr Buhari, is seen as one of the various expressions of the administration’s intolerance for dissent and disregard for democratic ethos.
But the government said it banned Twitter because it was being used by warmongers to destabilise the country.
After his return, Mr Mohammed would, in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), deny conferring with Twitter officials in the U.S.
According to him, meeting with officials of Twitter, headquartered in San Francisco, California, an air distance of about 3,880km and almost five hours flight time from Washington D.C., where he stayed until he rounded off his trip on August 20, was not part of his mission to the U.S.
During the trip which he described as “fruitful”, Mr Mohammed said he rather roved Washington D.C for three days speaking with international media organisations and think-tanks to “debunk” some “fake stories” on insecurity, banditry, COVID-19 and Twitter ban in Nigeria.
He also met with the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Matthew Lussenhop, and other U.S. officials in Washington D.C. to discuss a bilateral agreement on how to stop illicit trafficking in cultural property and artefacts between the two countries.
Amid the Twitter ban, which has now lingered for 90 days as of Thursday, and Mr Mohammed suggesting that resolving the issue was not his mission to the U.S., the U.S. Mission in Nigeria gleefully posted a picture of him with Mr Lussenhop and two other officials in a tweet on August 21.
The tweet left a bad taste in the mouth of many.
For Matthew Page, a researcher on Nigeria, the U.S. government’s continued engagement with the Nigerian government as symbolically portrayed in Mr Mohammed’s photo with the U.S. officials, depicts a disappointing tolerance for Nigeria’s slide towards dictatorship on President Buhari’s watch.
“I just don’t understand why @USinNigeria, @AsstSecStateAF, @ECAatState thinks engaging with a lead architect of #TwitterBan & a lead propagandist for an increasingly authoritarian government is good foreign policy,” Mr Page, an associate fellow of the Chatham House Africa Programme in London, said in a tweet reacting to U.S. Mission in Nigeria’s tweet of the Washington D.C. photo.
“Along with countless Nigerians, this tweet makes me cringe.”
People like Mr Page also wonder how Mr Mohammed, as Nigerian government’s face of the Twitter ban, policies, legislation, and regulations perceived to be aiming to limit free speech and free media, got a seat at the table with officials of a government that boasts about being the world’s bastion of democracy.
In what also appears incongruous to critics, the meeting took place in Washington D.C., a city that prides itself as “the capital of the free world.”
The world has moved on
Many have reasoned that the episode tells of how much the U.S. government and its Western allies, who condemned the Twitter ban after Mr Mohammed announced it on June 4, have put the matter behind them.
Like many Nigerians, the U.S. embassy appears to have adjusted to today’s reality of using Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to access Twitter.
Unless its Twitter handle is being operated from outside Nigeria, the embassy would only have been able to tweet the photo of Mr Mohammed’s Washington D.C. engagement using a VPN app.
A Twitter user like Lucky Ogiebo, who was apparently confounded by the irony in the U.S. embassy’s photo tweet, described Mr Mohammed as the man who “orchestrated the banning of Twitter in Nigeria,” and asked rhetorically, “Are you aware we are able to read this because we downloaded VPN?”
Another user tweeting via @Fejer Official, said, “I’m pleased to tell you that most Nigerians can’t see this info because this app is banned in their country by the so-called man that you people met! Y’all need to fix up…”
Twitter ban has been put behind them
As useful as VPN is, it has not been able to bring everyone back to Twitter, and many who defy the ban using the alternative platform application to access the microblogging site have expressed their frustrations.
In compliance with the ban, virtually all Nigeria’s federal and state government officials and agencies have stopped disseminating information through Twitter.
Big corporate organisations, like banks and network providers, among other businesses, have stopped tweeting, shutting down their major customer service channels.
Broadcasting stations have also cut off from their audiences of millions of people on Twitter in fear of retribution from the Buhari administration which has taken media censorship to a new height in the recent past.
Uncomfortable with using VPNs because of fear of cyber-security threats, or the limited engagements occasioned by the ban on the platform, many Nigerians have been forced to abandon Twitter entirely.
PREMIUM TIMES also reported how Twitter ban is limiting access to justice, shrinking the civic space and how it is killing small businesses in Nigeria.
Aware of the frustrations the ban brings to millions of Nigerians, the U.S. Mission in Nigeria, since June 10, has continued to have a Department of State’s statement rebuking the ban as a pinned tweet on its Twitter timeline.
But under the U.S. embassy’s headline tweet, the warm rapport between Nigerian and U.S. governments continues to find expression in various tweets.
For instance, on July 9, the embassy tweeted about a partnership between the two countries in military training.
“U.S. Army Special Forces @3rdSFGroup & @NigNavyToday Special Boat Service conclude 5-week training against land-based threats, such as terrorism & piracy,” the twee read, adding, “The long-standing U.S.-Nigerian partnership aims for a secure Nigeria & Gulf of Guinea. @USSOCAF #Partnerships #NigerianNavy.”
The United Kingdom (U.K.), which through its embassy in Nigeria, joined the diplomatic missions of the U.S., Canada, the Northern Ireland and the European Union (E.U.), to express “disappointment over the government of Nigeria’s announcement suspending #Twitter and proposing registration requirement for other social media,” continues to publicise its friendship with Nigeria through Twitter.
In a recent tweet, UK High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, hosted the Ambassador of Japan, Matsunaga Kazuyoshi, “to discuss the North East and how to follow up on the launch of @G7 Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Compact we launched last week, as well as maritime insecurity and economic relations with #Nigeria.”
The mission also announced a partnership with the Ogun State government, where the Deputy High Commissioner, Ben Llewellyn-Jones, met to discuss trade opportunities.
“The UK has announced that #Nigeria will be one of the first countries to receive genomic sequencing support through the New Variant Assessment Platform programme,” the mission also tweeted.
The European Union is not left out in the unwavering engagement with Nigeria despite rising cases of human rights abuses blamed on the government.
The mission in a recent tweet said Nigeria would more than any other African country benefit from the EU’s flagship scholarship this year, with 134 young Nigerians selected to study in top EU universities under the prestigious Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees Programme.
Criticising the E.U. tweet, a Twitter user @stan_angelus wrote, “what valid education would the EU that stays totally silent on colossal injustice and killings being perpetrated by a certain group of people offer? If you don’t practice equal rights and justice then your education is a total irony.”
In expectation that the foreign governments would bite after barking their condemnation of the Twitter ban, PREMIUM TIMES, in July, sent separate emails to them asking if they were considering sanctions against Nigerian officials if their call for the reversal of the Twitter ban was not heeded by the Nigerian government.
None of them replied.
Why Nigerians shouldn’t rely on foreign governments
In the view of Festus Ogun, a lawyer and human rights activist, foreign governments’ continued engagement with Nigeria is a pointer to the fact that Nigerians cannot rely on foreign governments to fight for their rights.
“Nigerians do not need to rely on foreign governments before fighting for their rights,” he said, and emphasised further, “foreign governments cannot help fight for the rights of Nigerians”.
“Those waiting for foreign aid before asserting their inalienable rights must wake up. The victory over tyranny and rights encroachment can only be fought and won by the victims. We must face it!”
Chioma Agwuegbo, Executive Director TechHer Nigeria, said Nigerians should not expect more than condemnation of Twitter ban from foreign governments.
“Nigeria, like many nations of the world, is a sovereign state, and that sovereignty is sacrosanct. Foreign governments can only advise, nudge, maybe even attempt to persuade our government,” she said
In her view, unrestrained intervention by foreign governments may be “tantamount to threatening the country’s sovereignty”.
“They can impose sanctions either generally or selectively, but that’s as far as they can go. And the truth is foreign governments are more interested in the safety, security, and advancement of their citizens on our shores; everything they do is hinged on that,” she added.
Like Mr Ogun, Ms Agwuegbo said “Nigerians should wake up to their responsibilities as active citizens”, urging them to “refuse to be silenced and bullied.”
“We can be a lot more active in holding elected officials to account before we take our matters outside the country; we are not interested enough! Which nation brings their issues to us?”
“We must realise the strength we possess as a people and use that in putting in the work to see the change we want and deserve.”
Jude Abugu, tweeting via @JudeAbugu5, said he had come to understand that “U.S. doesn’t care about anything except their interests”.
After Twitter ban, civic space shrinks further
Subsequent events have come to show that the Twitter suspension was a toehold the Buhari administration needed for broader restrictive ambitions.
Clampdown on free speech, through arrests of protesters and intimidation of dissenters has increased in recent times.
The administration has after the Twitter suspension proposed or supported legislations and regulations, such as the bills for the amendment of Nigerian Press Council (NPC) Act, and the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to strengthen its grip on the media.
It supported an amendment to the NPC Act to restrict the council’s board to “advisory capacity on a part-time basis without direct interference in the day to day administration of the council,” and cede its power to the Executive Secretary, appointed by the President.
The bill also proposes that the chairman of the board as well as members of the board shall be appointed by the president on the recommendation of the minister in charge of Information.
In the recent past, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), an agency under Mr Mohammed’s supervision as information minister, has issued warnings, queries, and summons to broadcasting stations over alleged infraction, more frequently than ever before. And this often happens when views expressed are critical of the Buhari administration.
In a bid to extend the government’s control of the media on other platforms, the administration has proposed the inclusion of “all online media” among those it can use the NBC law to censor.
The proposed amendment wants NBC empowered to “receive, process and consider applications for the establishment, ownership of radio and television stations.”
Weeks ago, as a pushback, the front banners of major newspapers in Nigeria bore a picture of an individual with a sealed mouth.
“Information Blackout,” read the caption that ran with the picture. “It’s not just against the media….it’s about society’s right to know, your right to be heard.”
According to the 2021 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria ranks 120 out of 180, this is five ranks down the ladder from where it was in 2020 with only Namibia; Cabo Verde; Ghana; South Africa; Burkina Faso; Botswana; Senegal in the first 50 rankings.
“Nigeria is now one of West Africa’s most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists, who are often spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed,” the survey reads in part.
Nigeria’s federal government had on June 4 suspended Twitter’s activities, two days after the social media giant deleted a controversial tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari which it said violated its rules.
Apart from banning Twitter in Nigeria, the federal government also directed the NBC “to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria.”
The Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, also threatened to begin prosecuting whoever defied the ban. He would later withdraw the threat.
The ECOWAS Court of Justice in a landmark ruling stopped the federal government from taking any action against Twitter users in Nigeria pending the hearing and determination of a suit challenging the ban.
But despite the reprieve of the court order, Nigerian broadcasting stations and some other media outlets continue to stay off Twitter out of fear of a possible clampdown by the Buhari government.